Facing an uncertain future; this doe eyed refugee girl in a Beirut clinic has travelled many miles since her birth in Syria. Here she receives precious medicines from Christian doctors and nuns in a poor quarter of Beirut. Her mother wants to move on, possibly to Europe where they will be safe from what they view as anti-Christian persecution. The little clinic run by Sister Georgina sees around 100 patients a day, with around 1000 new patients arriving each month, many young children.
Two young refugees, one Christian, one Sunni Muslim, stare across the Bekaa Valley towards their Syrian homeland.
Over the mountain range lie their homes in the border town of Al Qusayr, now largely destroyed in the terrible fighting between rebels and Syrian Government forces. In Al Qusayr, Christians and Moslems lived alongside each other for generations – until the bloody civil war reached the town. They fled over the Anti-Lebanon mountains to the dusty Lebanese Christian town of El-Qaa where they have been housed – not inexpensively it has to be said – in makeshift lodgings opposite one another. The pair have become friends, although their older relatives talk to each other less.
Mary, the Christian girl and her parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, pay $300 a month for a tiny one floor shack recently used to house farm animals. Fateh, the Muslim girl lives with her family and two year old daughter in a ramshackle tent, one of six on a patch of dried mud a stone’s throw from Mary’s house. It costs $100 a month to rent but will be scant comfort as winter descends on the Bekaa Valley. While Fateh’s family may well return home to a post revolution Syria, Mary’s family are unlikely to. They were forced from their homes, not by Islamic fanatics, but by local Sunni criminals who armed themselves as fighting began and targeted Christian homes in the wealthier parts of town. They fear any new regime – whatever promises are made in the run-up to change – will be less sympathetic is Christians, who make up 10 percent of the population and have co-existed with other faiths in the Middle East for two thousand years.
An Islamist state, they believe, will be less welcoming than the current Assad regime and point to the 300,000 Iraqi Christians forced out of the country when Saddam Hussein’s Government was replaced by hardline rebels. It is an uncertain future and, with the onset of winter, an uncomfortable one for these young friends.
He says he never took up arms to defend his neighbourhood in Al Quasyr over the border in Syria, but this 26 year old Christian refugee remains scared for his life and will not allow his face to be photographed as he squats in the garden of his temporary home in Lebanon. He knew the man whose militia forced him out and saw a former schoolfriend join up with him as they attacked their homes. “They weren’t Jihadists, they simply wanted our properties,” the former Hotel Management student said:”They had been thugs since I’d known them as boys – just not with rifles. In the end we left with the clothes on our back in the night and came here.”
Rial is 35 years old and an Iraqi Christian. She finally escaped her home in Mosul with her extended family of 21, including her five children, in September last year. Her family fell victim to an anti-Christian backlash that followed the downfall of Saddam Hussain’s regime.
She says:”We received threats, envelopes nailed to our door with notes inside saying ‘go away or die.’ We knew other people who had these envelopes who refused to react to them and then were killed.”
How did she know she was being targeted because she was Christian? “Only the Christians got them that’s why. We owned the bakery and made French bread and cakes. Everyone knew who were we were. One day we got home and there was an envelope on the door. We knew we had to leave.”
In the dispensary run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Roueissat, a poor Muslim district of Beirut, refugees queue for medicines for their children. Led by the redoubtable Sister Georgette, they see 1000 new refugees a month, both Christian and Muslim. Because it is a Muslim area there are only a few Syrian Christians, but Iraqi Christians, displaced a second time after fleeing first to Syria and now to Lebanon have no such qualms. As Christian and Muslim alike queued patiently for help, one Iraqi Christian whispered: “We can never go back, there is no Government now, nothing.”